Early child care is a thorny political issue, as anything combining babies and large sums of money inevitably must be. It sits at the intersection of a whole host of complicating factors: class divides and gender norms and workism and cultural undervaluation of care work and layer upon layer of parental anxieties. Reasonable people can disagree about what might improve the system we have.
But a college degree mandate for early child care workers is not reasonable. It’s onerous and elitist, a step away from affordable care which will drive perfectly competent and compassionate workers out of their jobs.
Now that a Washington, D.C. appeals court ruling earlier this month upheld such a mandate, it’s a bad idea that could well spread—depriving child care workers of opportunities nationwide unless they spend time and money they likely cannot spare on credentials they certainly do not need.
This is a bizarre policy to implement while American families grapple with rising expenses and daycares struggle to stay staffed. And it’s particularly bizarre coming from the District’s overwhelmingly Democratic government. How does the party’s incessant talk about reducing child care costs and fostering working-class jobs square with a regulation that does exactly the opposite?
The D.C. mandate in question dates to 2016, when it was pitched as a way to “address an academic achievement gap between children from poor and middle-class families that research shows is already evident by the age of 18 months,” as The Washington Post reported the following year. It requires day-care workers (including those in home-based centers caring for six or more children) to have at least an associate degree in early childhood education or, if they have a degree in another field, to take a minimum of 24 credit hours in early childhood education courses.
Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a civil libertarian nonprofit law firm, two child care workers and a parent filed a case challenging the mandate. The primary plaintiff, Altagracia (Ilumi) Sanchez, is an immigrant who obtained a law degree in the Dominican Republic before moving to the United States and becoming a citizen here. She runs a small home day care, and, as IJ has argued, there “simply are not enough hours in the day” for her to go to college while working the long hours that entails. Sanchez is “also worried about her English fluency—she can speak and understand well, but she cannot read and write at a college level,” nor could she pay for tuition without taking on debt.
Is that just cause to deprive Sanchez and workers like her of their livelihoods?
The District apparently thinks so, and multiple court rulings agree, including an appeals decision handed down last week with the grimly laughable suggestion that day-care workers should go to college so they can answer 2-year-olds’ “why?” questions. Sanchez herself was ultimately given a waiver, but unless something changes, other D.C. workers in similar positions will be forced out of their jobs or into black-market child care work starting next year.
The D.C. mandate is bad enough, but worse still is the prospect of its replication elsewhere.
This is a regressively difficult requirement that will force capable, caring workers out of jobs they are already doing well (or force them to work under the table, with all the risks that entails). For those who do try to comply, it will mean new expenses or debts—on a median wage of about $11 an hour—and time commitments on top of exhausting work. It’s not difficult to imagine overtired workers becoming worse at their jobs while they try to keep up with their classes.
And to what end?
More education is unlikely to mean higher wages. That $11 an hour is a pittance for the work it rewards, but it’s difficult to move the number upwards because parents can only pay so much. Here’s some napkin math: The average weekly day-care rate for infants and young toddlers is $226. At that age, you don’t want a child:worker ratio worse than 4:1—and even that’s a stretch, in my view, as a mother of twins who had a hard time handling two babies at once, let alone four—which means about $120 of that $226 goes to wages, and the other $106 has to cover all other expenses, including benefits, taxes, facility costs, and administration.
But $226 per week, at a monthly scale, almost exactly equals median housing cost—and that’s for just one kid. How much higher can it go before most families are priced out of day care altogether? The workers will not be better off after their mandate ordeal.
Nor will the children and families they serve. You don’t need a college degree to care for an infant or toddler, nor even to provide enriching care that can help close achievement gaps along socioeconomic lines.
Education at this age means talking (and talking and talking and talking), reading simple books, identifying letters on blocks, singing songs, playing games, going on walks. It means giving your full attention and answering questions as best you can. Parents without early childhood education degrees (or any degree) do this every day. Child care workers can too.
If Democrats are serious about helping working families and daycare staff alike, they won’t take this wrongheaded mandate outside District lines. They’ll quash it in Washington before it fully kicks in.